ABCs of Climate Change

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350 ppmv is considered to be the maximum amount of CO2 in the atmosphere in order to avoid a 2 degree rise in global temperature.

letter A

Atmosphere, which is warming up, thanks to the greenhouse gas effect of burning fossil fuels (and other practices).

Water vapour and carbon dioxide in the troposphere trap some of this heat, preventing it from escaping thus keep the Earth warm. This trapping of heat is called the “greenhouse effect”.

atmosphere Earth's atmosphere
Layers of Earth’s atmosphere Earth’s atmosphere

Illustrations courtesy of NASA (click on an image to see it full size.)

Agriculture, some aspects of which are potent causes of greenhouse gas emissions (see Methane).

Anthropocentrism, or Human-centredness, with consequent neglect of the needs of other species, ignorance of our dependence on them and our mutual interdependence.

Adaptation, or measures to adapt to higher temperatures and other weather effects from climate change, as opposed to (or complementary to) Mitigation.

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Letter B

Blue marble.

The Blue Marble was the first clear image of an illuminated face of Earth. Released during the 1970s, the image was seen by many as a depiction of Earth’s frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the expanse of space.

Blue Marble of the East Globe Blue Marble of the West Globe
Eastern Hemisphere Western Hemisphere

Images courtesy of NASA

Biodiversity, which is badly affected by climate change (see E xtinctions) as global warming changes habitat.

It takes time for species to adapt or move, and many fail to do so.

Brundtland Report, Our Common Future. The Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, 1987.

Our Common Future included warnings about climate change, along with many other environmental problems. Its answer was “sustainable development.”

Burning Fossil Fuels, the largest source of Greenhouse Gas Emissions.

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Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is sometimes called Carbon Capture and Sequestration.

A method of storing carbon sometimes in underground saline aquifers and sometimes on the ocean bed. It has been proposed as a way to store carbon emitted by the extraction of tar from the tar sands although whether it can store enough carbon to make a difference is disputed.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2), which is increasing in the atmosphere, from the burning of fossil fuels.

  • 280 ppm (vol.) was the level for thousands of years before industrialization;
  • an increase was discernible by mid 19th century, from coal burning (see Watt and the steam engine);
  • by 2009 380 ppm was reached; note that some experts think that 350 is the maximum to prevent a rise in global average temperature of more than 2 degree Celsius;
  • at 450 ppm it is estimated that 20% of species would become extinct, and we are fast approaching that.
  • at 560 ppm the IPCC predicts that 70% of species will become extinct, a “mass extinction

Carbonic acid, the acid formed by carbon dioxide in water, CH2O3 (see Oceans).

Carbon sink, referring to the carbon held in trees, fossil fuels, peat, etc.

When trees or fossil fuels are burned, this carbon becomes carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The depletion of fossil fuels is also the depletion of the carbon sink.

Carrying Capacity, a concept of the ability of the Earth to deal with pollutants, regenerate and restore.

Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery says that human beings reached “carrying capacity” in 1986, since which “we have been running the environmental equivalent of a deficit budget, which is sustained only by plundering our capital base” (The Weathermakers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth 79).

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De-forestation, a major consequence of global heating, exacerbating the loss of forests from clear cutting for timber products, land for food crops and biofuels.

Forests are an important part of the Earth’s carbon sink (see also Rain forest)

Denial, the contention that global warming is merely the effect of natural cycles, not human practices, and thus the excuse for not acting to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Die-offs, or estimates of species extinctions (see extinctions).

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Environment, a term not mentioned in the Constitution of Canada.

It comes from the French for “around,” implying that we are the centre of things! (We can also say Nature, Creation, Earth or Mother Earth not to convey that anthropocentric view.)

Economy, often used as an excuse for not caring for the environment, the Earth.

We should remember that the economy is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the environment.

Extinctions, the permanent eradication of a species, and Extermination, a milder form, meaning eradication in a locality.

It is estimated that with a rise in global temperature of 2 degrees Celsius some 20% of species will become extinct — does anyone think that ours will escape? The estimate with a rise of 4 degrees (by reaching 560 ppm carbon) is for 70% to die off. This “mass extinction” has happened only five times in the history of the universe. The last took place 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died off. This would be the first (and last) human-caused mass extinction.

Emergency, what we should be calling climate change.

We have “emergency measures” for ice storms and floods, while ignoring the greatest possible emergency, whole continents becoming uninhabitable and life itself (for most present species) impossible.

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Finished, what we (and many species) will be if we do not act viorously and soon.

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Greenhouse Gases, of which there are some 30.

French scientist Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier was the first to theorize that the atmosphere could act like a greenhouse, in 1824 (“Remarques générales sur la température du globe terrestre et des espaces planétiques,” Annales de chimie et de physique 27 (1824):136-67).

Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius in 1895 predicted the rise of ground temperatures from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (“On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground,” London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science 5th ed. ser 237-76).

Generations to Come, but our laws pay no heed to them.

Human rights are defined for current human beings (and corporations have been accorded them too). Our laws, including the Constitution and Charter of Rights, should include responsibilities to ensure a livable planet for future generations.

Glaciers feed many of the world’s rivers.

Glacier-capped Mountains in Tibet

Glaciers across the Tibetan plateau are melting “at an accelerated rate,” raising concerns for harvests and river-flows in China and India, according to environmental experts. “The majority of the glaciers across this region are in retreat,” China expert Isabel Hilton said, speaking recently at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. “The continued research on these glaciers suggests that they will be gone by 2050,” Hilton added.

…The surface area of the glacier shrinks to the point where the melt is much less.”
Lester Brown, Earth Policy Institute

Tibet’s glaciers are the source of Asia’s major rivers—including the Yellow River, the Mekong, and the Ganges—said Hilton, founder and director of the London-based environmental group chinadialogue.
And millions of people depend on [these rivers] for agriculture, for drinking water, for living.

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Health Consequences of Climate Change.

Based on research, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 150,000 deaths now occur in low-income countries each year, with young children making up almost 85 per cent of these excess deaths, due to the effect climate change has on crop failure and malnutrition, diarrhoeal disease, malaria and flooding.

Health hazards from climate change are diverse, global and difficult to reverse, according to WHO. They range from increased risk to safety from extreme weather events, to the effects of global warming on infectious disease and sea level rises leading to salinization of land and water sources.

Harm and the Hippocratic oath, originated by the Greek physician, Hippocrates, in the 5th century BCE: “First of all, do no harm.

Perhaps our prime minister, Cabinet ministers, premiers, mayors, and all legislators (corporate and union executives?) should take an equivalent oath on taking office, to promise to do no harm to the environment.

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Industrialization, of the use of fossil fuels to power engines for work, heat, transportation, etc.

In 1769 James Watt patented the steam engine that effectively got the “industrial revolution” underway.

Intensity Reductions, the approach of the current federal government in Canada, that is, to reduce the percentage of greenhouse gas emissions per car, coal mine or power station.

But the atmosphere counts total numbers, not percentages. Intensity reductions are entirely consistent with overall increases; moreover, with rising population and cars on the road, etc., increases could hardly be avoided.

IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 2400 scientists world wide, established by the United Nations to advise on climate change.

It issued its first “consensus” report in 1990, and subsequent reports have been more precise about the harm and the need for swift action.

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Justice, for which we need a new vision.

Old ideas of justice assumed sustainable lifestyles, so that theft and murder were defined for people in the here and now. But with industrialization and non-sustainable lifestyles, we risk depriving future humans, and many species, the necessities for life. Our concept of justice must be broadened. “Thou shalt not steal” must include theft from future generations.

Just One Earth.

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Kyoto Protocol, which Canada ratified, binding us to a 6% reduction of our greenhouse gas emissions, based on 1990 levels.

Our emissions have since risen over 25%. Adequate reduction plans must be adopted to ensure fulfilling our treaty obligations.

Key Dates on the Climate Crisis

  • 1766 Matthew Boulton and Benjamin Franklin designed a new steam engine, and a model was sent to Franklin and exhibited by him in London.
  • 1769 James Watt patented a (functioning) steam engine, launching the industrial revolution
  • 1867 British North America Act (Canada’s original Constitution), no mention of environment or non-renewable resources
  • 1895 Svante Arrhenius, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” first prediction of rise of global average temperature from fossil fuel burning
  • 1982 Constitution Act of Canada and Charter of Rights, still no mention of environment, any responsibility for conservation
  • 1987 Brundtland Commission report on sustainable development
  • 1990 First consensus report of the IPCC
  • 1990 First report of Canada’s Standing Committee on Environment on Climate Change,
  • 1992 Rio Conference – the socalled “Earth Summit” – resulted in the first international agreement to limit emissions of greenhouse gases: the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). More than 150 countries signed the climate convention at the Rio conference itself,
  • 1994 the UNFCCC came into force after it had been ratified or approved by other means by at least 50 countries. It thereby became legally binding.
  • 1997 Kyoto Protocol
  • 2008 Start of the Kyoto Protocol commitment period
  • 2009 Copenhagen Convention
  • 2012 End of the Kyoto Protocol commitment period

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Laws, which reflect the moral concerns and scientific knowledge of the time in which they are framed.

Canada’s Constitution, which dates back to the British North America Act of 1867, makes no mention of the environment or the need for conservation. In 1982 the Constitution Act replaced the BNA Act, now adding a Charter of Rights. Again there is no mention of the environment or the need for conservation.

Limits to Growth, a concept that was popularized by the “Club of Rome” in the 1970s to counter the popular belief (still widespread) that growth can continue indefinitely.

It stresses physical limits, especially the “carrying capacity” of the Earth (Donella H. Meadows, et. al, Limits to Growth, with a Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind, 1972).

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Methane, the second most important greenhouse gas, estimated to cause 15-17% of all global warming this century, and rising.

It is created by microbes that thrive in stagnant pools and bowels. Cattle are an important source. Methane is 60 times more potent than CO2 at capturing heat energy, but lasts fewer years in the atmosphere. Changes in agriculture are key to reducing methane emissions (see Meat).

Meat, which requires far more energy to produce than grains and vegetables.

If Canadians reduced their meat consumption by one half, substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions would be achieved.


All military activity should be counted in the assessment of greenhouse gas emissions. The atmosphere does not ask if “national security” was the reason for the increased emissions.

Mitigation, meaning measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in contrast with adaptation.

Experts say both mitigation and adaptation are needed.

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Fossil fuels are by their nature non-renewable. Whatever you believe about “peak oil,” the maximum quantities of oil, gas and coal occurred many million years ago, and have been declining since their extraction began, effectively since the industrial revolution in the late 18th century.

Much of our thinking and many of our laws on resource use assume that resources are renewable, which they were at the time the laws were devised. Oil and gas are very recent in use (discoveries in the 19th century, substantial use only from the mid-20th century); coal use, with minor exceptions, goes back a little earlier (late 18th century), not a long time in human history.

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Oceans, whose health is now at serious risk, thanks to climate change.

Dead zones are already widespread, and 90% of large ocean fish have been killed off.

The oceans are essential for supplying the air we need. Half the oxygen in the world is produced by ocean plankton, which are now threatened by acidification from carbonic acid, the acid formed by CO2 in water. Some 30% of the increase in carbon emissions from industrial activity has been absorbed by the oceans, hence their increased acidity.

Ocean Acidification

The preindustrial pH level in the oceans was 8.2; and is now at 8.05. (Acidity rises with lower numbers, and that difference is substantial.) A pH level of 7.6 is unprecedented, meaning scientists cannot predict what species would survive at that level.

Oil Sands, the corporate word for “tar sands” (which see).

Offsets, or measures to increase the carbon sink to offset the release of carbon from burning fossil fuels

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The Canadian Constitution gives the federal level of jurisdiction the responsibility to legislate for the “peace, order and good government” of the country.

Lawyers debate whether this provision is adequate to enable vigorous federal activity to counter climate change.

Peace is an environmental issue, for war, and routine military preparations for it, cause massive greenhouse gas emissions, and numerous other kinds of environmental pollution.

Pine beetle, an insect that has ravaged the forests of British Columbia and is moving East.

Before global warming the winters were cold enough to kill off large numbers, keeping the infestation in check.

Production, a misnomer for the extraction of non-renewable fossil fuels–best to use a more honest word.

Production, in the case of renewable resources of course depends on their being used sustainably. There are no “oil-producing provinces” or countries; we are all oil depleters.

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Queen Elizabeth II, whose carbon footprint must be significant, but who has begun to purchase carbon offsets for her flights.


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Rain Forests, a significant part of the world’s “lungs” and the carbon sink.

The loss of the Amazon rain forest from global warming would have runaway effects, triggering further global warming.

Resources, or the human approach to Nature or the Earth.

We too easily ignore the distinction between:

  • renewable resources (or at least potentially), like forests, soil and fish;
  • non-renewable, which are by their nature irreplaceable, one-time gifts of Nature, notably fossil fuels, which cannot be replaced short of geological time.

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Sea levels.

Rising sea levels threaten many low lying areas of the globe. The IPCC report underestimated the amount of melting of the icesheets which contribute significantly to rising levels. Most climate scientists believe melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet will be one of the main drivers of sea level rise during this century. In addition, atmospheric warming also causes rising levels because warm water expands. More …

Sustainability, or Sustainable Development, as used in the Brundtland Report).

Sustainable use means development “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Our Common Future 43). There can be no sustainable use of fossil fuels. Climate change is the ultimate threat to the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

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Tar Sands, the most shameful energy project current in Canada, and possibly the world, responsible for the rise in recent years of our greenhouse gas emissions, despite our commitment to reduce.

Technology, in this case the confidence that technological solutions will serve adequately to mitigate and adapt to global warming, and provide substitutes to fossil fuels as they are depleted.

Technological solutions have served and will continue to serve for many purposes, but environmentalists caution about overconfidence in new (and unproven) technologies being relied on to reduce emissions.

Carbon capture and sequestration is a favourite proposal in Canada, although good results are entirely speculative, and at best feasible only in a limited number of locations. The full (lifetime) cost and benefit of alternative technologies have to be considered. For example, nuclear power is advertised as a technological solution greenhouse gas emissions from power plants using fossil fuels. They produce little CO2 at the plant itself, but the amount produced for uranium extraction and processing and nuclear waste disposal (for which no safe method currently exists) are not counted.

Tipping Point Ahead Sign

Tipping point, the point where the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere causes irreversable and catastrophic climate change. For an explanation this video takes about 11 minutes to watch.

Tragedy of the Commons, an expression coined in 1968 for the tendency of individuals all acting rationally for their self-interest destroy a limited resource, against the long-term interest of them all (Garrett Hardin, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Science 162 (1968):1243-48).

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Unintended Consequences, of which the climate crisis is a prime example.

James Watt and other inventors and industrialists had no idea that greenhouse gas emissions, much less runaway climate change and the risk of mass extinctions, could result from their great achievements, only a few centuries later.

UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

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Vote and Voice. We live in a democracy.

Corporations can advertise and lobby, but only people (18 and over in Canada) have the vote.

With proportional representation those votes would have an equal voice in Parliament, that is, if 10% of the voters chose Party A, it would get 10% of the seats. Proportional representation in Canada would ensure electing Green Party candidates and would give more seats to the NDP, fewer to the Liberals, Conservatives and Bloc Quebecois. Liberals and Conservatives, however, would be more fairly distributed across the country than under the current “first past the post” system, which can result in these major parties being completely shut out of some provinces, even with one quarter of the popular vote.

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Wabc header

Web of Life, a concept that emphasizes our inter-dependence with other species, that our continued existence depends on the vitality of this “web of life.”

Wis for James Watt, who in 1769 patented the steam engine which launched the industrial revolution (see Unintended Consequences).

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Anxiety which is what we feel when we understand what is happening to the planet. We must not let it paralyze us into inaction.

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Young voices must be heard, for they, those who can speak for the worst affected. What right do the people of a mere two centuries to damage the environment, perhaps make life impossible for most species on Earth, to maintain an unsustainable lifestyle?

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Zero Population Growth and Zero Energy Growth, goals proposed by environmentalists a generation ago for example, Canadian environmentalist David Brooks’s Zero Energy Growth for Canada, 1981.

Canada’s population would be stable given our birth rate, but it is growing thanks to strenuous measures to encourage immigration. Growing population means new customers for businesses, but since the atmosphere counts the ppm of CO2, increased population means increased greenhouse gas emissions, a threat to all populations.

Zero emissions

Zoo, which is where we may be able to save some species facing extinction … possibly even the human species

Zounds Alor! Let’s get on with it!

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